Of all uniform items issued to Sailors in the United States Navy, no other item may be as iconic as the white hat, affectionately known as the "Dixie Cup." This week, the Dixie Cup was further rooted in our heritage when the first female recruits at Recruit Training Command were issued
their new enlisted white hats as part of the Navy's efforts toward uniformity in service members' uniform. Navy Personnel Command writes that as early as 1866 Sailors were authorized to wear a white sennet straw hat which was worn during the summer months, but in 1886 a low rolled brim, high-domed item constructed of canvas was written into regulation.
Aside from a brief hiatus, this piece would become a mainstay of the enlisted Sailor's sea bag for more than 100 years. The canvas was eventually replaced by cotton as a cheaper, more comfortable material. Though it is fabled to uses for everything from a sunscreen to a flotation device, its only official purpose by the Navy is to serve as the uniform headgear for enlisted males in paygrades E-1 to E-6. Navy uniform regulation 3501.27 says that the cover must be "made of white cotton twill with a rounded crown and full stich brim" and must be worn squarely on the head with "lower front edge approximately one and a half-inch above the eyebrow." Regulations also specifically mention that the cover is not to be "crushed, bent or rolled." Sailors seem to be unable to resist, often personalizing their hats through rolling, crushing and stylistically reshaping it.
According to the article, "To Cap It All Off - A Fond Look at a Navy Trademark: Uses (and Abuses) of the 'Dixie Cup,'" by Marke A. Hensgen, All Hands Magazine Vol. 860 (November 1988): 33-35, Sailors describe numerous ways they imparted their own personal style into the hat, be it through rolling down the front brim, flaring the sides with "gull wings" to simply letting the hat break down into its own shape. For many, their Dixie Cup
became a way to express their individuality.
Hensgen wrote that the Dixie Cup came to symbolize the Navy and was so familiar with the public that it was frequently featured in the backgrounds of movies where Sailors would be seen in train stations and airports to symbolize travel. The little cover was so beloved that he wrote when it was temporarily phased out in favor of a combination cover in 1973, the uproar was tremendous from both enlisted members and civilians who came to view the "cracker jack" uniform look as iconic. Hensgen wrote that Sailors also discovered the little white hat less expensive and easier to store than the larger, ungainly combination cover.
It should come as no surprise that a hat with such a history should be made in the United States. "Literally, from the moment it's constructed until the time it's put on the Sailor's head it's all done in the United States," Anthony Ruzicka, DLA Troop Support Clothing and Textiles Navy recruit training cell said. "Everything, from the cotton grown that goes into making the Dixie Cup to production of the caps are done here in the States." The cap is produced by a company called ORC Industries located in La Crosse, Wisconsin. With more than 75% of their workforce comprised of people with disabilities, the not-for-profit manufacturing, logistics, and assembly company is contracted by the Defense Logistics Agency's Troop Support Clothing and textiles division. DLA Troop Support ordered a total of 139,392 Dixie Cups in 2014, and that number may go up.
The Navy will expand wear of the cap to all female E1-E6 Sailors
by October 31, 2016. Ruzicka added that the little white hat seems to hold special meaning for Sailors as the item is immensely popular. "Their father or uncle was in the Navy and they want to wear the same uniform, both male and female," he said. "It will be a new era."
Whether it's worn by the greenest of recruits during an inspection or saltiest of veterans on leave, enlisted Sailors share a direct link to their past as the Dixie Cup will go on to be an icon of the U.S. Navy, just as it has for the last 100 plus years.